Motion Twin has outdone itself with its action-packed 2-D platformer, Dead Cells. It combines the Metroidvania genre with roguelite elements to create a hybrid experience. When it comes down to it, Dead Cells is an early access success story that shows the great potential of the system. There’s plenty to like about this game, so let’s get right into it.
The story in Dead Cells is light. This isn’t a story driven game with compelling characters and plot twists. You play as a prisoner trying to escape jail. Due to mysterious circumstances, you can’t die and keep coming back to life. It’s simple and easy to understand, which is more than enough.
The reason you'll want to play this game is the kick-ass action. The gameplay in Dead Cells is fine-tuned to perfection. You have three weapon types: melee, ranged and shields. The variety in each category is mind blowing. Melee weapons include swords, daggers, sandals and more. Every weapon has different attack speeds and animations, altering how you play. Ranged weapons also have variety with bows, throwing knives and ice blasts being some of the many options. Shields work as you would expect, offering you a sweet parry ability.
Dead Cells has been compared to Dark Souls for its precise combat. While it’s true you have a dodge roll with invincibility frames, that’s as far as similarities go. In fact, this game has more in common with Mega Man X. Dead Cells rewards players who are aggressive and keep up constant forward momentum. It’s an adrenaline rush of blasting anyone foolish enough to stand in your way. You have access to a double jump and dodge roll from the start which are tools you must use all the time. Sadly, there is no wall climbing like in Mega Man X.
You may be thinking that the game is too easy because of all the player advantages. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Enemies hit hard, especially in the later stages where a single mistake leads to death. As you progress to the later levels, you must learn to avoid taking hits. Health potions are limited and you can only refill them between stages. They also take some time to consume, leaving you vulnerable. Everything is balanced to provide the player with a difficult but fair experience.
Part of the difficulty comes from the cycle of death. Every time you kick the bucket, you lose all the money and weapons on hand. To negate this, you can purchase permanent upgrades using "cells." For example, you can buy the gold upgrade to retain a set amount of money during each death. The money can be used to buy weapons during a playthrough, giving you access to rare equipment. Some of the upgrades take a ton of souls, so the grind is real. Once you start "getting good," you can easily earn 20 or more souls per stage.
The boss fights are epic as well. The first boss is a tough fight that you have to come prepared to. This means exploring prior areas to find the best weapons and sub-weapons. You can also pick up stat boosters along the way that last until you die. The bosses have different phases depending on their health, which is pretty typical. One issue with these fights is how much health the bosses have. To even things out, bosses are actually susceptible to status conditions. You can freeze them with ice grenades and even trap them using wolf traps. It’s a good sign when developers let you use all available tools against a boss. It means victory comes from your own unique strategy, rather than one linear method.
So the gameplay will rock you to the core, no doubt about that. Now, you may be wondering what type of music you want in the background. Maybe something that pumps you up to be a badass. Possibly even inspired by classics like Mega Man X and Castlevania. Yeah, that would be amazing.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack doesn’t quite deliver to the same extent. There are solid music pieces and some are perfect companions to the thrilling nature of the gameplay. However, it’s not an outstanding soundtrack. There aren’t many memorable tracks here like "Vampire Killer" and "Storm Eagle." It’s a shame that the music doesn’t reach the same tall heights as the gameplay. This game could be a serious contender for the best indie game of the year if the music was better.
The visual aspects are a different story. While it does use a pixel art style, it feels different enough to stand on its own. When you see this style, you will think Dead Cells. Every stage is a new environment with tons of secrets to find. You start in a prison level but the game branches out to new areas. You can make your way up to the Ramparts of the facility and scale the rooftops. Or walk through a forest with spikes and dead bodies hanging from the trees. All of the levels are top notch and you’ll enjoy every second spent exploring them.
It’s time to discuss the most important feature of this game that sets Dead Cells apart. Recall that Dead Cells is a “RogueVania." It combines elements of roguelikes and Metroidvanias to create a relatively untouched sub-genre. There are both strengths and weaknesses in this combination.
On the plus side, you have an insane level of variety. Every time you restart, the layout of the dungeon will change. The levels themselves will remain the same though. For example, you always start in the prison. From there you can either go to the forest or the toxic sewers. However, each place will look different from before, offering new obstacles and challenges. This really helps to keep things fresh during longer play sessions. You won’t get sick of traversing the same path because the path keeps changing.
Then there’s the fatal flaw with procedural generation: the lack of human-crafted level design. Take any good Metroidvania like Rogue Legacy or even the recent Hollow Knight. What do they have in common? Impeccable level design. The stages are organized in clever ways that are both memorable and exciting to traverse. As you play through the game, you become familiar with the stages and find new shortcuts. In Hollow Knight, there’s a gradual progression from one zone to the other. It actually feels like traveling to a new and unknown location.
That’s where Dead Cells falls short. The levels are never awful, but often feel bland. Platforming challenges are light and don’t require as much precision or tools. Also, having to start from the beginning can get frustrating at times. You start to feel bored with the prison after a while. All you want to do is see every area, but you are forced to revisit the same old places.
Honestly, this would be a greater issue if the gameplay wasn’t fantastic. Even though at times you feel tired of restarting, you still want to play. Once you’re hooked on what Dead Cells has to offer, there’s no escaping. In isolation, the procedural generation is a major issue. Once you add in the rest of experience, it’s a small problem that only resurfaces every now and then. The combat is so satisfying and enjoyable, the backdrops are of little significance. Even if you’re stuck in the first couple of areas in the game, you will still have a blast.
And that perfectly captures the Dead Cells experience. There are some shortcomings and features that could’ve been better. Despite this, at its core, Dead Cells is one hell of an action game that rewards skill and patience. It’s a game about repetition, but each cycle being better than the last. This is one game you’ll keep coming back to over and over again. Much to the dismay of the poor protagonist who keeps being reborn to provide us with an endless stream of entertainment.
Arshad reviewed Dead Cells on Steam with a code provided by the publisher.